If they didn’t know it after Wednesday’s play-in victory over Denver, Andrew Wiggins, his younger teammates and their Wolves Nation soon will realize after Sunday’s NBA playoff opener tips that they’re not in Kansas anymore.
A fourth-grader when the Timberwolves last reached the playoffs in 2004, Wiggins and teammates Karl-Anthony Towns and Tyus Jones have played their share of big games, from AAU and high school to the NCAA tournament, international play and so far in the NBA, too.
But nothing like the ones they will play starting Sunday at Houston in terms of preparation, duration, competition, adjustment and attention to detail, not even Final Four games that both Towns and Jones played in three years ago.
“The playoffs are a whole different animal,” Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau said. “They’re totally different from college, they’re nothing like college and so you have to be ready for that.”
In the kind of postseason play Towns, Jones and Wiggins previously have known, it was one-and-done, just like all three players’ college careers.
In the NBA, it’s a best-of-seven series in which players will know everything about their opponents — including maybe the other guy’s deodorant preference — before it’s all over.
On Thursday, Thibodeau gave his players a scouting booklet thick with information on the Rockets, but not as thick as in some of his playoff seasons with the Bulls.
“I’ve been around for a long time and he gives some pretty crazy books out,” said Wolves veteran forward Taj Gibson, who played five seasons for Thibodeau in Chicago. “This one wasn’t too bad. I’m used to having a book like this big [holding his hands 6 inches apart]. Today he didn’t quiz us. I look forward to him quizzing us probably tomorrow or maybe on the plane. You never know with Thibs.”
It’s one thing to beat an opponent one time, such as in the NCAA tournament. It’s quite another thing to do so four times after both sides have had days before — and in between — to prepare for their opponents.
Thibodeau calls an NBA season from start to season a steady ratcheting of intensity — one in which the regular season is higher than the preseason, the playoff race is higher than the rest of the regular season and the playoffs themselves are unlike anything else that has come before.
“It’s totally different from the regular season, totally different,” Washington star guard Bradley Beal said. “Guys are locked in. They know your tendencies. You know their plays once they’re called out. The level of play, the fierceness, the competitive edge that everybody has, each game is like a win-or-lose situation. It’s kind of like a life-or-death atmosphere.”
Thibodeau acquired veterans Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson and Jamal Crawford last summer and more recently signed Derrick Rose because each knows of which Beal speaks. Their younger teammates were served an appetizer Wednesday when the Wolves overcame the Nuggets in the first NBA regular-season finale in 21 years where the winner advanced to the playoffs and the loser went home.
Thibodeau likened that 112-106 overtime victory to Game 7 of a playoff series.
After making two clutch free throws that essentially clinched the game, Wiggins considered the experience more than a mere game.
“It’s like fighting someone physically and the loser dies,” he said. “We were both fighting for our lives.”
Four’s a charm
Now multiply that by as many as seven games over as much as two weeks, and the first team to four victories gets to live, or at least play on.
The better team almost always advances.
“It’s hard to beat special teams four times, there’s no question about that,” said Boston coach Brad Stevens, who coached Butler University to the 2010 and ’11 national championship games — with six of the Bulldogs’ 10 tournament victories coming over higher-seeded teams — before taking over the Celtics. “That’s probably the biggest difference. When you’re in the NCAA tournament, you get one crack at somebody. You can sneak up on them, throw them a curveball or they just maybe haven’t seen you.
“It’s different. If we had to play some of those teams seven times on the way to those Final Fours, we may have not gotten there.”
Time is what makes all the difference, both the number of games played and days off players have to study and ponder and coaches have to tinker with personnel and strategies.
Or not …
Golden State’s Steve Kerr won five NBA titles as a player and witnessed a decade’s worth of playoffs as Phoenix general manager or television analyst. But he never viewed the playoffs as he did when he accepted the Warriors job in 2014 and saw them through a coach’s eyes for the first time.
“I don’t know if there was a revelation, but the feel is different,” said Kerr, whose team is trying to win its third championship in four years and plays San Antonio in the first round beginning Saturday. “The amount of time you have to prepare, deciding when to make adjustments was really probably the most important thing for me to learn.”
Play harder, longer
Kerr also learned that deciding what changes to make and when — and just as important, when not to make them at all — is something of an art form.
“On the one hand, you don’t want to go away from what’s made you successful,” he said. “If you make an adjustment too early, you’re kind of telling your team you don’t believe what we’ve just done all year. You make the adjustment too late and everybody’s looking at you like, ‘What took you so long?’
“Those are the things you have to think about in the playoffs as you adapt and adjust.”
Stevens calls the adjustments need in a series where you play the same team again and again “overblown.”
“It’s all about do you get back on defense?” Stevens said. “Do you play with great intensity? Do you rebound the ball? It all goes back to all that stuff. Now there are small tweaks each team makes, but at the end of the day it’s do you do those things well?”
Thibodeau always says a coach must consider two things before he makes any changes: Are your players executing their instructions properly and are they doing so with the amount of effort needed.
Kerr calls “playing harder” always a coach’s first playoff adjustment. Houston’s Mike D’Antoni concurs.
“Playing harder, playing better and maybe a matchup here and there,” said D’Antoni, who coaches a Rockets team that won a league-best 65 games this season, earning the top seed in the Western Conference. “There’s no magical potion that you can sprinkle dust out there and think you’ll win all the time. Yeah, we like to get to the hoop and guess what? The other team doesn’t want you to get to the hole. It’s about competing and doing the best you can.
“They always say the game slows down in the playoffs. It doesn’t really slow down. It’s just tougher to score. Everybody’s locked in, playing the best defense they can play. The playoffs are much tougher because you’re playing against much better teams all the time.”